Can We End Poverty in Just 15 Years? (Part One)


In February 2013, musician and philanthropist Bono strode upon a TED stage, flipped his signature shades upside down, and slid them inverted back onto his face. He then declared, “I have embraced my inner nerd.”

He had moved, he said, from entertainer, to activist, to “factivist”—a number-crunching, data-obsessed do-gooder.

To prove his newfound nerd cred, the U2 frontman recited a dizzying array of data on recent strides in the fight against poverty and its maladies.

Since the turn of the millennium, there are 8 million more AIDS patients receiving life-saving drugs. Eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa have seen a 75% reduction in deaths by Malaria since 1990. And there are 7,256 fewer children dying every day.

But those statistics were mere prologue to an even more stunning claim. Worldwide, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. And, said Bono with a flourish, if that trajectory continues, we will reach zero by 2030.

If Bono’s optimistic declarations sound like rockstar hype to you, consider this: his forecast reflects the United Nation’s own sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The road to sustainable development

As of 2012, 896 million people lived at $1.90 or less a day. That’s 12.7% of the world’s population. More than 800 million are living on less than $1.25 a day, making them the poorest of the poor. This is the group Bono had in mind when he said we could reach zero percent.
He was saying we could bring virtually every individual on the planet above the $1.25 a day line.

As Bono mentioned in his TED talk, we’ve made great strides in the fight against poverty, especially since the year 2000. And it’s likely that we never would have reached these historically low poverty levels if it wasn’t for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Established in September of 2000 by the United Nations, the MDGs represented a fifteen-year game plan for building a better world. At the top of the list was cutting the proportion of the world’s population living in poverty in half. Fifteen years later, the UN announced they had attained this lofty goal.

And yet, progress has been uneven. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa suffer the most from extreme poverty. As of 2012, just over 77.8% of the world’s poor lived in these two regions. And when poverty rates are broken down by gender, we see that women are much more likely to live in extreme poverty than men.

Further, although there are many Americans and other Westerners living below the $1.25 line, poverty rates in developing countries are heart-stopping: one-fifth of people in those countries live on less than $1.25 a day.

But Bono is right to be hopeful. Poverty rates really have taken a nosedive since 2000, and a zero-poverty world is within reach.

The need for sustainable development

To build on the success of the MDGs, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development issued Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the end of 2015.

These new goals have drawn sharp criticism for being more vague and less measurable than their predecessors—not to mention twice in number. Further, the UN identified just twenty-one “targets” to track progress toward the MDGs; there are a head-spinning 169 targets for the SDGs.

Even a self-proclaimed factivist like Bono might have trouble keeping track of all that.

However, even the most strident detractors have admitted that at least one of those SDGs is attainable: the eradication of extreme poverty. Or, as the first of those seventeen SDGs baldly states, “end poverty in all its forms, everywhere” by 2030.

The math pencils out. Even without an initiative to attain this audacious goal, poverty rates will fall by 2030. But the levels will not reach zero without concerted effort.

The link between sustainable development and emissions offsets

Studies have demonstrated that the best way to eradicate poverty is through sustainable development, which the UN defines as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, progress and growth without serious negative side effects.

Countries like the United States have come to economic dominance thanks in part to an utter lack of attention to sustainability. Just think about the Industrial Revolution—all those smoke stacks pumping tons upon tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

And that is the same juncture at which many developing countries now find themselves. For instance, even as the UN plans to eradicate poverty by 2030, India plans to triple its coal production by that date. If you’re thinking such a development plan can hardly be called sustainable, you’d be right. Economic development typically comes with a knee-buckling amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet, India points out that it too has the right to develop its nation for the benefit of it’s people in the most cost-efficient manner possible, just as the US and other nations have done. India’s argument (like many developing countries) is that it should either be afforded the opportunity to pursue rapid development in the same manner that the US, Europe and other developed countries have, using cheaper but more environmentally destructive technologies like coal, or it should be offered economic incentives to pursue development through environmentally sustainable, but more expensive, technologies such as solar, wind and natural gas. (It was this very quarrel that led to India’s public breakup with the Paris climate agreement this summer.)

Whether we like it or not, climate issues and sustainable development are inseparable. Although the poorest countries in the world emit the least amount of carbon dioxide, they also are most at risk to the adverse effects of climate change. One of the challenges within sustainable development is finding a way to advance the economies of poor countries, like India, without contributing to the detrimental effects of climate change. Finding innovative ways to balance development with sustainability—for example, by purchasing carbon offsets—is essential. This is the focus of The Paradigm Project’s efforts.

Continuing the fight

Even if we manage to reach the UN’s lofty goals, the fight to truly “end poverty in all its forms” will not be truly over. Not only is the poverty threshold a moving target, there are still another 2.7 billion people who live in moderate poverty—defined by the World Bank as those who live on less than $2 a day.

Addressing the plight of the moderately poor in environmentally sustainable ways is equally essential to attaining a truly poverty-free world. And focusing development objectives on the goal of raising the proverbial tide for all boats is the surest path to long-term global peace and prosperity.

By working with the moderately poor to develop scalable clean energy business models that sustainably reduce poverty, The Paradigm Project is actively improving health and livelihoods while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

For instance, Paradigm’s EzyLife brand manages distribution and sales networks that serve rural families with life-giving products like efficient stoves, water filters, and solar lanterns. These technologies save families money, improve their health and reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% over traditional cooking and lighting methods.

Eliminating poverty by 2030 is attainable, but it won’t happen on it’s own. Thankfully, all of us can play a part in reaching this goal.


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